I underwent hip arthroscopy for a labral avulsion last Wednesday. I had hoped for the debridement which meant that I’d be on crutches for a week and PT for a month. Instead, there are now tiny anchors somewhere in my hip “anchoring” the detached labrum to its proper place. It’s not a bad surgery really–two small incisions; but, it means four weeks on crutches and three months of PT. Four to six months until I’m completely back to normal. I can’t quite accept this. I feel like I had the surgery months ago, and it was only eight days ago. I have named my crutches Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.
If you are a person who is a primary anything, then you might understand my next statement. I feel like I’m going nuts. I’m anxious. Really, really anxious. I have been the primary caregiver and doer-of-everything for almost eighteen years. I can’t even unload the dishwasher now. It’s an event to even get out of bed. I hate it. I haven’t left the house. I don’t know when I’ll be able to drive. I certainly can’t go to the grocery store alone. I need help with everything. I have become dependent upon everyone around me for help.
This reminds me of an exercise I had to do when I was in college. When I transferred from that tiny private college in New York state to the giant mega-versity in Minnesota, I got a job lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons. It wasn’t good enough that I had five years of experience or the gold standard Red Cross certification. I had to go through another week of training because i would be working in a world-class facility designed to host NCAA and international competitions. If an elite athlete needed rescuing, then we lifeguards would be the people to do that. So, we were put through an exceptional amount of training and preparation. We were also put through a great deal of diversity training.
The exercise that stands out to me as I write this involved pairing off with another guard. His name was Volkan. He was from Turkey. He was very respectful, kind, and handsome, as I recall. He once told me that his name meant ‘volcano’, and then he said, “Like a volcano, I am peaceful on the outside but hot underneath,” and then he winked. I was, therefore, very uncomfortable when we were put together for this exercise. He always wore a tiny Speedo as many non-American males are wont to do, and I was wearing my red swimsuit with LIFEGUARD practically spackled across the chest. He was required to blindfold me, and, for the sake of the exercise, I had to pretend that I was blind. That was to be my temporary disability. I then had to ask him where the bathroom was located, and I had to trust him to lead me from the entrance of the very large facility to the women’s locker room. He tied the blindfold around my eyes very tightly. I couldn’t see a thing. I felt overwhelmingly vulnerable, and I also wondered if Volkan liked the exercise more than he should, recalling his prior flirtatious wink.
After I overcame my feelings of vulnerability, I felt paralyzed, leaning over, shuffling my feet. All I could hear was Volkan’s voice guiding me. He wasn’t supposed to touch me. That was one of the requirements of the exercise. We were supposed to respect every person that came into the facility and respecting their bodies was a requirement. We could never just assume that we could touch them. Sure, it would be easier to grab someone by the arm and lead them, but that’s pedantic and disrespectful. What adult would want to be treated like that? I had to trust a guy that I barely knew to get me from point A to point B, and I felt almost exposed, blindfolded in my swimsuit. That was the point though. How might it feel to be blind? How might it feel not to know the way? How might it feel to need help from a stranger but not just a stranger? A strange voice? In a strange environment surrounded by strange noises and the echo and reverberations of bodies slapping against water, wet feet running past you? It’s disconcerting not to mention being half-dressed. That, too me, amplified my dislike. Would it have been so difficult had I been wearing pants? I like to wear pants. I feel like I need them.
Volkan did successfully lead me to the women’s locker room. The sadist in me found comfort in knowing that Volkan had to wear the blindfold, too. I had to lead him to the men’s locker room without touching him guiding him only with my voice. It was a lot harder than I expected it to be. I had such a strong urge to reach out and grab him saying, “Oh just come on then!” Do you know how long it takes to lead a blindfolded person through a huge facility to the locker room? A bloody long time! I realized how impatient I could be, and I saw how patient Volkan was. We got to be friends after that. I admired his fortitude, and he liked my “American humor”. Had the term “snark” been in use back in the mid-90s, he would have used that word instead. The two of us were continually scolded for not taking the exercise seriously enough. That was my fault. I kept saying inappropriate things while blindfolded. What? I had to defend myself! I wasn’t wearing pants!
There are many metaphors embedded in this experience, but what stands out to me the most right now is the sudden loss of independence and self-reliance. What did it feel like to be forced to rely on someone else’s perceptions of reality? What did it feel like to need another person so resolutely? How did I feel then when I couldn’t see? What would it have been like if Volkan would have been impatient, unkind, and expected me to act like a seeing person?
I think of Grace as I write this or even Milly. I think of anyone with a deficit who is expected to perform as if they are not deficient. We are all deficient in some way, but many of our deficiencies don’t impact our lives in a significantly measurable way. Mental illness, however, can impact us. It can disable us. Ask anyone who has endured a season of depression if their ability to function was impacted, and they will tell you that it was. What about anxiety? Anxiety can be a crippling disability. And, then we step into the realm of mood and psychotic disorders. Entire families can be disabled.
This diversity exercise worked between Volkan and me because we were both willing, and that also stands out. I was willing to be led, and he was willing to patiently lead me. It was a good partnership. What if I had refused to engage or believed that Volkan was entirely responsible for me? What if Volkan refused to help me, not respected my dignity and dragged me to the locker room, or had begrudgingly helped me but had done so with a negative attitude? There are so many ways a partnership like that could go when applied to reality. What if I believed that Volkan was out to get me or actively trying to hurt me, or Volkan resented being asked for help because he was in denial? He believed I wasn’t really blind at all. This is a common dynamic in families where mental illness is diagnosed in a child–denial. An effective partnership becomes next to impossible in that scenario.
Willingness is key, isn’t it? Willingness is one of the core DBT values that Eadaoin and I have been learning. You don’t accomplish much in life if you aren’t willing. There must be a willingness to listen, to learn, to practice perspective-taking, to validate, to be humble, to be open to other ideas and solutions, to try again, to try something new, to be wrong, to ask for help, to accept help, and to admit that you don’t know but that, given that you are willing to try again, you might very well know at some point.
For me, I have to be willing to sit this month out. I have to be willing to let others do for me, and I’m not accustomed to that. That means that the laundry will be folded differently. Towels will be hung differently (we all have our ‘things’). The girls will be eating a lot of gluten-free chicken strips, and my bed looks like a gerbil nest because my husband doesn’t know how to make it. I have to be willing to look for what works and give up my perfectionism and ambition to do it all so that my hip heals properly. I have to find the willingness to practice mindfulness and radical acceptance. It’s easy to say. Hard to do.
This experience also gives me new insight into Grace’s world. She apologizes a lot because she feels like she’s always asking for help. She feels like she’s too dependent, and, well, she has become dependent. That, however, is not her doing or her fault. It is the nature of her illness. Right now, I need help with everything. I can’t even carry a cup of coffee because I need my hands to use my crutches. I am forced to rely on everyone around me as is Grace. It is very unpleasant. I feel very anxious. I understand, at least a little bit, why Grace feels so much anxiety. But, as long as she’s willing to ask for help and I’m willing to help her, we’ve got a working partnership. I can reassure her that I don’t mind helping her because that’s what I need. I see this now. I need my husband to tell me that he doesn’t mind helping me. What would be even better? I would like him to say that he likes helping me because he loves me. That’s what I need to tell Grace then. It’s a privilege to help her. That would be even better. I think that it’s normal to fear being a burden. Why would it be different for her?
She’s willing to show up and so am I. And, I think that’s true for every partnership in life. Both people have to be willing to participate. If you’ve got that, then you can go somewhere together.